Monday, April 11, 2005

The Self

Yesterday, in the faculty club, a colleague form an unnamed rival department in the humanities asked me if philosophers have actually had any interesting things to say about the "self". He said this with a jeering tone, as if we were too busy discussing counterfactual causation to think about the self. The food may be palatable but there's no way to avoid indigestion if one has to deal with all this sort of nonsense. I mean, does Daniel Dennett ring and bells? Does Derek Parfit or Thomas Nagel mean anything to you? Probably most of genuine insights into self-hood around are from twentieth century philosophers. I mean, did Shakespeare ever think about fission? (Not to say this colleague was from the English department...but not to deny it either.)

This led me to wonder--how come no one outside philosophy departments reads contemporary philosophy? You might think this is a bad question: after all I don't really care what the latest bit of Gertrude Stein criticism is, so why should Zane Appleby (the misguided English Professor who interrupted my pasta primavera) read any of the new J Phil (more on THAT later)? But when you think about it, while we (philosophers, that is) are not professionally obliged to concern ourselves with the intricacies of post-modernist reflections of Chaucer, they (the post-modernist Chaucer scholars, like Assistant Professor Appleby) ARE professionally obliged to have views or at least views on what views they might have on topics of current philosophical interest.

Let me explain by noting why various recent philosophical discussions are relevant to literary criticism.
1st example: the self. I mean this is pretty obvious. The kinds of main critical questions and foundational issues are exactly ones about personal identity: who is the Author? When is a fictional representation of a real person actually the real person and not just a parody of the real person, etc.
2nd example: counterfactuals and metaphysical possibility. It seems to me a like a major question in understanding what the author is trying to do is figuring out whether she/he/it is writing about an EPISTEMIC possibility or a COUNTERFACTUAL possibility. Literary critics never seem to address this question. Perhaps its because they think it's obvious that books are intended to describe counterfactual possibilities... This might be the case with MOST fiction, but isn't it possible that some authors are intending to describe a world that might be actual for all they know. This seems especially true when the work is about the future. In this case 1984 has gone from being an epistemic possibility to an epistemic impossibility.

I could go on. Some examples include, parthood, realism/anti-realism, theory of reference... Any comments of the following form are welcome: describe how a major current topic in philosophy relates (or, Zane, doesn't relate) to literary criticism.

This leaves me with the question of why, given the RELEVANCE of analytic philosophy for literary studies (not to mention other fields across the spectrum) is philosophy so unread. Maybe because it's just too hard?


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